- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Fiscal negotiators were scouring the budget for surplus funds when Sen. Barbara Hoffman noted that Warren Deschenaux, the legislature's chief fiscal adviser, said it would be OK to use $1 million in the 911 telephone emergency system for other purposes.
"Yes, but Warren isn't running for re-election," Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, a fellow Baltimore Democrat, said.
There were a few chuckles, a murmur of assent, and the conference committee moved on, looking for other pots of money it could tap to pay for programs threatened by the state's budget crunch.
With the election just months away, committee members did not want it to appear that they were putting public safety at risk to pay for other programs, no matter how worthy.
All 188 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this year, and for senators and delegates hoping to come back for another term, the 2002 session has been a sort of 90-day job interview with their ultimate bosses, the voters.
Lawmakers know that a vote against a popular program at any time during a four-year term might be turned against them by an opportunistic opponent. But when the election is just a few months away, the threat is immediate.
The fact that 2002 is an election year didn't result in any drastic changes in the way the legislature carried out its business this year. But the political rhetoric was ratcheted up a notch, and lawmakers took more care with potentially unpopular decisions, especially in the area of the state budget.
Some of the steps Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening used to balance the budget were a matter of concern to Democrats because of the political risks they entailed.
The governor's plan to cancel a 2 percent income tax cut that took effect Jan. 1 was rejected almost as soon as copies of the budget hit the desks of fiscal leaders.
It also did not take budget committee members long to decide that it was not a good idea to take money away from the fund that underwrites Maryland's heralded statewide emergency medical system.
Democratic leaders such as Mrs. Hoffman and Mr. Rawlings Baltimore lawmakers who head the two budget committees said from the beginning that the legislature was not about to renege on the promise it made to Marylanders to reduce their income tax.
And while they said their decision was not related to the September primary and November general elections, Republicans disagree.
House Minority Leader Alfred Redmer of Baltimore County said Democratic leaders realized they had to look out for the interests of fellow Democrats in marginal districts.
"That certainly has driven some of the issues, especially the tax cut," he said.
Delegate Robert Flanagan, Howard Republican, said Democrats "were much more cautious in dealing with tax issues this year."
Mr. Redmer said he was surprised with some of the stands Democrats took in this election year, especially the decision to accept a pay plan that will increase salaries for senators and delegates by $11,991 over the next four years.
Democratic leaders planned to let the raises take effect without bringing the pay plan up for a vote. But Republicans, seeing it as a good campaign issue, forced a roll-call vote in both the House and Senate to put lawmakers on record.
That was part of an overall plan by Republican leaders to use the session to establish a record they can run on in November.
As an example, Mr. Redmer said Republicans contacted volunteer fire companies to organize them in a lobbying campaign against Mr. Glendening's plan to take money from the emergency-services fund and use it to balance the budget.
Budget committees rejected the governor's arguments that the fund had a big surplus and that taking away some of the money would not diminish services provided by rescue squads, Medevac helicopters and hospital trauma centers.
And as Democrats in the Senate pushed for a plan to increase state aid to public schools by $1.3 billion over the next six years, Republicans insisted it would inevitably require huge tax increases in the future.
House Speaker Casper Taylor said the election did not have any significant effect on Democratic voting patterns this year.
But he said the overall tenor of debate was more partisan because of Republican efforts to politicize the session.

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